When Joie Mucha was looking for an active, age-appropriate class to take her 4-year-old son, Cesar, to last winter, she decided on one at POW! Mixed Martial Arts in Chicago. But this class wasn't your run-of-the-mill kids' kickboxing course. It was called Superhero Training.
Cesar, whose favorite superhero changes depending on the week, loved the class.
"He likes superheroes," Mucha says. "What kid doesn't?"
What kid, indeed.
Between the hit Batman movies (formerly filmed right here in Chicago), the infamous Spiderman musical with music by Bono, and the ongoing popularity of books and graphic novels, superheroes are nearly impossible to escape, even for adults.
But increasingly, as a quick Google search reveals, the super-popularity of superheroes is being harnessed by local organizations like POW! to teach little kids some big lessons about their bodies and minds, identity and helping others.
Katalin Rodriguez Ogren is the force behind Superhero Training. The West Loop mom of three and accomplished mixed martial artist grew up idolizing WonderWoman and her magical lasso.
Ogren came up with the idea of a superhero-themed program years ago and was finally able to implement it when her studio expanded its children's offerings.
Although the connection to martial arts might not be obvious, Ogren says the superhero component allows children to channel the physical things they are learning toward a positive purpose.
"Where martial arts is fun in the context of superheroes is that it gives children an outlet where they have permission to fight somebody," she says. "You can create this imaginative environment where you fight the 'bad guys.' You're not just punching and kicking people."
Ogren gets the children to role-play being superheroes and then run through an obstacle course with imaginary elements to it-think a wrecking ball or tower of doom-which teaches them physical skills at the same time.
The obstacle courses primarily promote agility, while other elements of the program focus on speed, jumping, balance and lateral movement, not to mention basic body awareness.
"When you create obstacle courses where you're a superhero chasing bad guys. … It's just a really good way to get them to learn agility. It has a specific focus but a more playful context," Ogren says.
Clearly the emphasis on play is working as the obstacle courses are consistently the children's favorite element of the class. Mucha says Cesar constantly asks to set them up at home.
But beyond physical skills, superheroes can also teach kids how to use their brain power. After all, even the Man of Steel had to hold down a day job at the Daily Planet.
For the past two years, the Chicago Children's Museum has held a Superhero Month where kids can create their own mini-superhero (and make him fly), design a cape and discuss their favorites.
According to Tsivia Cohen, associate vice president of family learning at the museum, while the kids are having fun, they're also exercising their imaginations in a significant way.
"Their imaginations are so strong," she says. "We're always blown away with the things they come up with."
And since the kids can take their spangled-sheet capes home with them, Cohen hopes their imaginary play and learning continue beyond their visit to the museum.
CCM also uses the emphasis on superheroes to teach basic literacy skills. During Super Alpha-Palooza, held twice during Superhero Month, staff members dress up as superheroes that correspond to each letter of the alphabet-and the kids must get all 26 to sign their books.
But basic literacy skills aren't the only things that go up, up and away with the help of superheroes.
Barrel of Monkeys, an arts and theater education company, frequently uses superheroes in its six-week creative writing residencies in Chicago Public Schools.
"We use superheroes as a way to think about developing characters in their stories," says program director Elizabeth Levy. "There's a structure built in that kids are familiar with. A story very naturally starts to develop."
Superhero stories, with their epic battles between good and evil, have a natural conflict and resolution built in. And when kids create their own superheroes with alter egos, superpowers and nemeses to match, they automatically think in terms of who, what, when, where and why.
Those elements, combined with children's innate capacity for creativity, lead to some imaginative results.
"The powers are the most interesting," Levy says. "You see creativity and the voice of the student come through (when they determine) what that power is, that thing that makes this character different from all other superheroes."
The big questions
While the process of creating a superhero can simply be a wild or silly experience, kids also use superheroes to explore the way they see themselves.
"Sometimes I think kids come up with superpowers that counteract a fear they have or a situation where they don't have very much power," Cohen says. "Children do feel very vulnerable and don't have a lot of control in many ways. So their imagination allows them to have that."
Even Bruce Wayne assumed the identity of Batman to make up for his own inability as a child to intervene in his parents' murder.
"Superheroes are extreme versions of people who can enact change and make things happen," she says.
Cohen thinks the superhero identities the children adopt in the museum tend to be entirely their own, such as the girl whose superhero had the ability to spread love.
"We spend a good part of our childhood figuring out who we are, and the superhero piece is really kids thinking about their identity in different ways … who am I, what could I be, what's important to me," she says.
And in a time when many kids are being bullied or harassed for who they are, superheroes can also teach a little bit about self-esteem and being true to yourself.
"Superheroes have things about them that make them unique and special," Levy says. "(They're) sometimes outsiders when they show their superhero nature. People of all ages deal with that, and a superhero has to deal with that conflict on an extreme level."
For Joie Mucha, one of the main things she wanted her son to get out of the Superhero Training class-beyond having fun-was self-assurance for dealing with life's obstacles.
"I wanted him to build confidence, just knowing he can try stuff and not succeed the first time," she says.
And if their physical swagger when suited up as a superhero is any indication, kids are picking up on that confidence.
"Kids with a cape on are kicking," Cohen says.
No superhero is an island
As Peter Parker once learned, "with much power comes much responsibility." And the social responsibility aspect is possibly the most important piece of the superhero puzzle.
In Superhero Training, Ogren puts a big emphasis on what it really means to be a superhero-beyond the capes and gadgets. Her program has an extensive curriculum focusing on justice, cooperation and respect.
"We talk about how we would apply our powers to our community," she says. "That's a really important component about being a superhero. … They all have a debt to society in some way, shape or form."
She focuses on the "classic" superheroes-like Superman, with his emphasis on "truth, justice and the American way"-who uphold those values, rather than some contemporary superheroes who, studies show, might not be good role models for children.
In class, Ogren uses "real-life" situations, such as stealing from a friend, to discuss how superheroes would behave. She even admits to using the superhero trope to "brainwash" kids into eating their vegetables.
"No matter what, we still integrate (that) superheroes have a greater responsibility beyond fighting bad guys," Ogren says. "They get it. The conversation is very simple."
Levy has also noticed that the moral aspect of superheroes-goodness, truth, compassion, strength-tends to be what makes them role models to students.
"Not only are (superheroes) cool, but they do good things and change the world in a way," she says. "Whether or not a student is (consciously) thinking about morality, that is still very present in the way they're thinking about the character."
Even though Mucha didn't know about the social responsibility aspect of Superhero Training, she has seen its fruit in Cesar.
"He has made comments about helping people and what his superpowers are going to help with," she says.
And if the box office receipts of the latest Batman flick are any indication, it's not just your little one who loves-or learns from-superheroes. The ability to be "super" is something that appeals to all of us.
Elizabeth Diffin is the associate editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.